Has Obama just paid Lieberman’s price?

A conspiracy theory, a conjecture, call it what you will–but isn’t it possible that Lieberman’s price for his health-care vote is more troops for Afghanistan?

CBS reported today that President Obama has decided to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  (The White House denies any decision has been made.  h/t for both: Steve Benen.)  In other news from a couple of weeks back, Harry Reid said that Joe Lieberman’s threatened filibuster of the health bill, though it seemed pretty serious, was “the least of Harry Reid’s problems.” (Andy Sabl notes that Harry Reid shares Bob Dole’s odd habit of referring to himself in the third person.)

I have no evidence for the following.  It’s not even speculation.  But it is, I think, a natural worry, so here goes: What if we’ve just seen the terms of a deal?  Lieberman cares much more about Afghanistan than about any domestic issue–and his explanations for his filibuster threat don’t even make sense. The reverse is probably true of Obama. And so the bargain might be struck.

I’d love to be wrong.  I almost certainly am wrong.  But while I think that 99 percent of conspiracy theories deserve less attention than they get, I regard this one as among the 1 percent that deserves more attention than it’s getting.  I’d like to see someone ask Lieberman to deny it, and to stake something on the denial.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

11 thoughts on “Has Obama just paid Lieberman’s price?”

  1. Andrew,

    Why would you like to be wrong? If Lieberman would actually torpedo passage of the Senate bill without the commitment, and so this is "the only way" to get the 60 votes for cloture … which part do you not like?

    I'm not disagreeing with you, just curious. Do you want to be wrong because you don't want to believe such bad things about Lieberman? Or about Obama?

    If it's the latter, I would comfort myself that (a) the troops might actually do good, and (b) a troop commitment, once promised, can be reversed / ratcheted down / otherwise deflated much more easily than health care reform can be un-legislated, once passed.

  2. As to whether I'm reality based: more or less baseless speculation on something that's possible but highly improbable,labeled as such, in no way traduces a commitment to evidence and proof. The latter is what I'd like. If Lieberman were asked about this and hemmed and hawed, there would be reason to look further.

    Finn, regarding your question about why I'd like to be wrong–good question, actually, since if we were to do a straight political cost-effectiveness analysis, there's no doubt that recissions and care delayed or denied through lack of insurance kill many more Americans every year than the war in Afghanistan. But this isn't a straight cost-effectiveness analysis. I believe, admittedly, with no firm philosophical reasons, that the reasons for sending American soldiers into harm's way should involve national security, not logrolling. I'd like to believe (but don't) that Lieberman is too principled to play games with the troops. I'd also like to believe (and pretty much do, hence my lack of belief in my own speculation) that Obama is too. I doubt whether committing the troops and then calling them back would be as easy as you assume, though.

    Finally, might the troops do good? Sure, it's possible. On Afghanistan, I'm a former hawk turned mild skeptic, not a doctrinaire dove. But if the troops are to be sent, I want it to be because Obama is committed to doing that and thinks it's a good idea, not because Lieberman is holding him hostage.

  3. I'll defend Andrew here. It's speculation, but there is clearly something funny going on with Lieberman.

    However it's just silly to label it as a "conspiracy". Taking the views of a powerful politician into account in making a foreign policy decision, even one involving the military, isn't in principle a bad thing.

  4. Andrew: "I believe, admittedly, with no firm philosophical reasons, that the reasons for sending American soldiers into harm’s way should involve national security, not logrolling. "

    We've seen far more logrolling than national security for quite a while; this is probably inevitable in a world-spanning empire, where 'national security' = 'some interest, somewhere in the world'.

    "I’d like to believe (but don’t) that Lieberman is too principled to play games with the troops. I’d also like to believe (and pretty much do, hence my lack of belief in my own speculation) that Obama is too. I doubt whether committing the troops and then calling them back would be as easy as you assume, though. "

    Lieberman has shown himself to be a lying, back-stabbing SOB on more than one occasion. Note that he received Democratic leadership support (including from Obama) in his attempt to secure the Dem nomination in '06; despite that he's opposed Obama and the Democratic leadership quite a bit. He was also quite graciously granted seniority in the Democratic caucus as if he was still a Democratic senator, and has rewarded that favor with opposition, both now and in endorsing McCain.

    Frankly, and seriously, at this point I wonder if there's any evidence of Lieberman having *any* ethics, aside from supporting Lieberman, moneyed interests and Likud.

  5. Is is possible that Obama is paying off for Health care reform by promising an increase in troops in Afghanistan? There's a precedent.

    General Westmoreland demanded an increase in troops in Vietnam so that he could fight a war of attrition against the Viet Cong. LBJ knew that the troop increase was required to get Medicare and the Civil Rights bills passed over right-wing objections. So he paid that price and doubled the number of troops in Vietnam – as well as dooming his reelection in 1968. We got Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights bill, and Nixon out of the deal.

    As for the question of whether it is right to play politics by sending American troops somewhere to fight, most of the deployments of American troops I have observed since 1960 have been primarily for reasons of domestic American politics and vote-getting. Few of the justifications for deploying troops that I have seen survive close scrutiny. What's it matter if it costs a few more warm bodies in green clothes with rifles? It looks like it is already going to cost the lives of countless women who need decent health care and abortion-type medical care?

  6. I'll add that I believe President Obama's commitment to increase forces in Afghanistan in the first place, during the campaign, was aimed at least in part at providing political cover for a withdrawal from Iraq. That doesn't lessen my respect for him.

  7. Occam's speculative conspiracy razor:

    Lieberman has been offered multi-millions by health care executives to filibuster the bill.

    The money could be delivered to him in a foreign bank account, or by other nefarious means favored by the big-moneyed.

    No one would ever know. Joe and his family would be rich forever.

    Why do my thoughts follow Occam's shortest path?

    Joe had no health care principles.

    There is plenty of video around showing that.

    So he is not opposing the bill for any moral or intellectual reason.

    So what's his motive?

    Joe is an American. And there is one thing I've noticed about Americans…

    If you dangle enough money and you can get them to do absolutely anything.

    So for Joe:

    It's the size of the principal, not a matter of principle.

    He has sold his vote.

    I'd bet on it.

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